The UK and Boris Johnson on the Skids

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

As I write (the weekend of 20-21 June), the UK’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has reached 43,632, and the total number of cases over 300,000. The total number of excess deaths (the number of deaths for a period of a particular year typically calculated against the average for that time of year for the preceding 5 years) is 64,500 (according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics).

The ONS also reported a rise in unemployment of 600,000, with more expected to be out of a job in the coming months, and even more when a likely No Deal Brexit starts to kick-in at the end of 2020.

The UK economy has declined by 20%, and is already in an official recession, which will only deepen with Brexit.

The UK’s COVID-19 death toll is now the highest in Europe, and the highest in the world after the US and Brazil. Speaking of Brazil, jokes are made in British social media about Bolsonaris Johnson.

The UK is second in the world for COVID-19 deaths per million of population (631.22), with only Belgium placing higher (845.99).

Another fiasco involved the “test, track and trace app” said only a few weeks ago to be the key to easing lockdown restrictions, but which has now been abandoned after 3 months.

The Tories, under the auspices of the NHS, awarded a no-bid £90m/$112m contract for this app to a private company, despite repeated warnings from experts that it would not work on Apple and Google phones (the latter companies would have to do a major reconfiguration of their operating systems to accommodate the doomed app, and this being a no-brainer for them because of the huge expense involved, they told BoJo Johnson and his colleagues to get lost).

So, in yet another U-turn, BoJo’s government said it was going to switch to an alternative designed by Apple and Google themselves (!), since presumably an app designed by them would be compatible with their operating systems. This app, however, is months away from being ready. Moreover, Apple said it was news to them that they were to be involved in the production of the new app.

It was also revealed that the unit responsible for the government’s failed contact-tracing app attempted to block rival apps to safeguard its own version, thereby hindering efforts to track the early spread of COVID-19.

Contrast this with the German government’s Corona Warn app, the largest open-source project undertaken by the German government, which was ready to go after just 50 days, and has been available to download from both the Apple App Store and Google Play since the evening of June 15. The app, produced by Deutsche Telekom, SAP, and other companies, has already been downloaded over 6 million times since then.

Critics wondered why BoJo did not do the sensible and obvious thing by paying for the German app, along with any modifications required for its deployment in the UK, which would have saved time and money (and lives!).

The obvious answer is that Brexiters such as BoJo, having touted the UK’s superiority over anything to do with the EU, couldn’t now turn to an EU-member to bail him out in a situation that might signal the UK’s inferiority in comparison with the EU and its members.

This is not the only Tory U-turn in the past few weeks.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the 22-year-old Manchester United and England soccer player Marcus Rashford (who has already played 38 times for England despite his relative youth), teamed up with food charities to raise £20m/$25m to provide food for children who would not receive free school meals during the lockdown.

Rashford wrote an open letter pleading for the extension of free school meals into the summer holidays, an extension refused initially by the Tory government.

With huge public backing for Rashford’s initiative (in a poll Rashford was supported by a majority of Tory voters), BoJo announced his government would be rescinding its initial refusal of the extension.

I have already mentioned in a previous CounterPunch piece the U-turn on foreign NHS staff having to pay a surcharge for their NHS medical treatment. However, nothing has been done to implement the new policy, and foreign NHS workers are still having to pay the surcharge.

Another government U-turn involved the decision to send children back to school on June 1st, despite the fact that no track and trace system would be operational by that date. Facing pressure from parents, teachers and their unions, and the medical associations, the government caved-in, and assigned September 1st as the new date for a return to school.

In the last Opinium poll for The Observer in late March, the week after the lockdown started, the Conservatives had a huge 26-point lead over Labour (54% to 28%). BoJo’s personal approval rating was at +29%. This weekend’s poll, by comparison, has Labour under Keir Starmer in a virtual dead heat with the Tories, while BoJo’s approval ratings and those of his government have plummetted.

BoJo, notorious for his failed vanity projects when he was mayor of London, also ordered a £900,000/$1,111m paint job for the RAF’s Voyager aircraft set aside for VIP use. The plane’s camouflage exterior is to be replaced by the patriotic red, white, and blue, even though the gaudy makeover will render the plane useless for military operations when not ferrying dignitaries such as BoJo and members of the royal family.

The root cause of these fiascos is apparent. The Tories had reconfigured themselves to be a Brexit campaigning party, with no real ideas or plans or policies for the task of government itself. The fact that nearly all of BoJo’s team of advisers, including his Rasputin-like chief adviser Dominic Cummings, are holdovers from the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, speaks for itself.

The PR, spin, and “optics” that are a priority for political campaigners in these populist and media-saturated times, do not in themselves translate into the proficiencies required for adequate government.

In a time of great peril, marked by the sheer complexity and rapidity of events, the arch-philanderer Boris Johnson has thus been caught with his pants down.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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